School & District Management Opinion

Racing to Aid Students Already at the Top

By Ann Robinson — November 23, 2009 3 min read
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For too long, the nation’s education system has neglected the needs of its high-potential students.

Education policy has been shaped for decades by the fallacy that gifted and talented students do not need specialized support, resulting in a severely underresourced and highly fragmented collection of policies and services.

Parents and teachers of gifted and talented children have long recognized this neglect, and now a nationwide survey released this month by the National Association for Gifted Children and the Council of State Directors of Programs for the Gifted makes clear the depth of the problem and the consequences it will have for the nation if unaddressed.

Unlike other special populations of learners, such as students with disabilities or those learning English, groups that benefit from a national strategy and cohesive support, gifted children learn at the whim of a patchwork collection of policies, programs, and services that vary widely from state to state and from district to district.

The federal government’s investment in gifted and talented learners now stands at 2 cents of every $100 education dollars, shifting responsibility to the states. But according to the biennial “State of the States” survey, more than a quarter of all states provide no funding to support gifted education, and most defer to local school districts the responsibility both for funding gifted education and for setting or implementing critical policies. Another 10 percent spend $1 million or less in state funds, an insufficient amount.

This lack of leadership by the states translates to neglect in the classroom.

Despite research linking gifted students’ learning gains to properly prepared teachers, the survey finds that most gifted students spend the majority of their school days in general education classrooms, where they are taught largely by teachers not trained to meet the needs of advanced learners. Only five states require general education teachers to have any training in gifted education before entering the classroom, and only five require that teachers in specialized gifted programs receive annual professional development in gifted education.

These data come on the heels of a national survey conducted last year by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. That study found that a majority of teachers do not see themselves as adequately prepared to meet the needs of gifted and talented students, and they do not feel encouraged to invest their time and energies in working with these learners.

The continued, systemic neglect of this entire group of students will ultimately result in long-term negative consequences for our nation.

For proof, one need look no further than data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Over the past decade, despite impressive gains by students at the low end of the performance spectrum, the scores of students in the top 10 percent have remained largely flat. Other indicators reveal that for bright students from disadvantaged backgrounds, the achievement gap between them and their more-affluent peers is growing.

Anyone who has ever worked diligently to excel in any field—whether academics, athletics, the arts, or a trade—knows that achieving proficiency is insufficient for attaining success. It takes commitment to the highest possible standards to make a real contribution and effect positive change.

By focusing an outsized amount of attention and resources on helping failing students attain proficiency, our nation has fostered a troublesome underinvestment in the very student population most likely to be its next generation of innovators, discoverers, and pioneers.

If the United States is truly committed to waging a sustained race to the top, this pursuit must go beyond words to include meaningful support for high-potential children through a national gifted-education policy in which responsibility—and accountability—is shared by education stakeholders at every level. At its core, a national policy would turn our fragmented offerings into a coherent gifted-education system with complementary rather than contradictory policies, responsible and sustained funding streams, and an assurance that every high-potential student would be identified and served by well-prepared teachers.

A renewed commitment to our gifted and talented children is a renewed commitment to our nation’s future.

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A version of this article appeared in the December 02, 2009 edition of Education Week as Racing to Aid Students Already at the Top


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